Oysters and Food Safety – A Slimy Political Problem

February 24, 2010

oysters & politics

By Terry Smiljanich:

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” so goes the famous quote by Jonathan Swift.

Oysters have been a food treat since prehistory, but everyone knows they can also be a threat.  Eating them raw can pose some risk.  A big enough risk that the FDA wants to do something about it. But then came politics, rearing its ugly head.

The Danger of Raw Oysters

Oysters harvested in warmer waters can harbor Vibrio vulnificus, a virulent “flesh-eating” bacterium which if ingested from raw oysters can kill you.  The mortality rate is as high as 50% among certain high risk patients, like those with liver problems or diabetes. This fact is the reason for the folk wisdom that one should only eat raw oysters in months that have an “R” in them (i.e., NOT in May, June, July or August, when ocean waters are generally at their warmest). In the Gulf of Mexico, where about two thirds of all American oysters are harvested, this is much more of a problem than oysters taken from Northern waters, such as prized Long Island Blue Points or West Coast Kumamotos.

How serious is a Vibrio infection? In 2008, 17 people died from this infection after consuming raw oysters. Given the fact that more than 60 million pounds of oysters are consumed per year in the United States, the chances of dying from eating a raw oyster are still pretty slim.

A Proposed Solution from the FDA

The deaths from Vibrio are preventable. Sterilization of harvested oysters during the dangerous summer months would all but eliminate the bacteria threat.

Last October, the Food and Drug Administration announced new proposed rules that would require “post-harvesting” processing of oysters taken from the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months to eliminate the threat of Vibrios.

Sterilization, however, is an expensive process, so the cost would obviously have a great effect on the price of oysters and when combined with decreased consumption would seriously undercut the profits made off of their sale.  Enter Politics.

Not So Fast, FDA

The oyster industry reacted quickly. Garnering support from Gulf Coast state and federal representatives, they put maximum pressure on the Obama Administration to back off of the proposed regulations.

Gulf Coast Senators went one step further. Legislation was introduced by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and David Vitter (R-LA), the “Gulf Oyster Protection Act,” which would specifically “prohibit the implementation of any requirement for the control of Vibrio vulnificus applicable to the post-harvest processing of oysters.”

The result? Just one month later, the FDA announced that based on concerns as expressed by politicians and officials from the affected states (mainly Louisiana and Florida), the government decided it needed more time “to further examine both the the process and timing” for any changes in these new safety standards. The FDA will now “conduct an independent study to study how post-harvesting processing or other equivalent controls can be feasibly implemented in the Gulf Coast.”

Safety vs. Profits

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been arguing for oyster safety standards for years, has organized a protest campaign.

It seems that there can and should be a legitimate cost/benefit analysis in weighing the pleasure of eating raw oysters, the dangers posed by that, and the steps that could be taken to eliminate the threat. But somehow it always seems that politics plays a more important role than any truly objective analysis.